“I Write the Books I’d Like to Read” — A Chat With Miriam Parker
When we meet Gillian Brodie, the protagonist of Miriam Parker’s new novel, Room & Board, she’s down on her luck. A publicist for New York’s shiniest stars, she’s been to award shows, gone on wild adventures, and wears clothing from top designers. Suddenly, through a series of unforeseen events involving #MeToo and social media, she finds herself with only a few suitcases, back at the boarding school she’d graduated from years before.
So begins an exploration of who we are when we can’t define ourselves by what we do–or the social circles in which we travel? Will Gillian rise to the challenge?
Parker’s novel is a treat—I devoured it in a day or so, way too quickly, since it left me wanting much more of Brodie and the motley cast of characters she meets as she learns how to stand on her own two feet once more. The characters and situations that Parker has created feel so relevant to our post-Covid world, whether we’re looking for some lost confidence or just trying to navigate the complex, reconfigured world of adult friendships. Recently, I had the pleasure of chatting with Parker–who works in publishing in addition to writing books–about writing, publishing, and everything in between.
How does Room & Board fit into the landscape of your work as both a writer and in the world of publishing?
In truth, the books we publish at Ecco, where I work, are very different from Room & Board. We publish mostly literary fiction and nonfiction, plus some poetry and cookbooks. That’s not what I write, although I love it. I write the books that I’d like to read in my spare time—a romance novel or a beach read. This is a paperback original, more of a quick pickup kind of book. And I love that. The New York Times will not review my book, which is fine. I would love to be in USA Today, though. All different kinds of books are an important part of the literary landscape.
I know a lot about the book publishing industry, but I’ve also separated myself from my work as a writer. Dutton, my publisher, is separate from Ecco, where I work as an associate publisher. I’m very clear on the roles in that situation—their job is to publish the book and my job is to be the author.
One thing that’s cool about book publishing is that every day is different. The books I work on are so wide ranging; I meet journalists, astronauts, scientists, politicians. I’m such a curious person and I bring that wide range of interests into my writing. Room & Board is full of different things I’m interested in: Intergenerational friendships, mentorship, the role of social media in our lives.
Not to mention the wine.
It does take place in Sonoma, after all. Before writing, I went to the area to do some on-the-ground location research, and I’ve been learning as much as I can about wine. I have a friend who’s a wine rep, who’s been super helpful.
Can you share about your writing process? How did you go about writing a book with so many intersecting plotlines and details?
I actually didn’t write an outline for the book before I wrote it. What I did write was a treatment, which is a narrative outline with the main elements of the book, but not really fleshed out. That was super helpful because if I hit a wall when writing I could go back to that document and look at what, in theory, should happen next. That being said, this book is pretty heavily revised—the first draft had an extra subplot that we decided needed to be changed. That was the right move to make, but it basically meant I had to deconstruct the book, take the whole world apart and put it back together. That was terrifying.
As a writer who’s working with a publishing house, I was so lucky to have a team of people to work with. The editor, the copy editor, the proofreader, all there to catch things. There are a lot of little details to keep track of. The first section, which jumps into the past, is one example of that. It was the last thing that I wrote, even though it’s the first thing you read. My editor and I were brainstorming and came up with the idea to add a prologue and have it be the scene where the friendship that’s at the center of the book is at its height. It’s strange, in a way, that it’s the last thing I wrote but the first thing anyone will read.
Where does the novel fit in with your other writing?
I do love to write a personal essay—I just had one published on LitHub about When Harry Met Sally. Besides that, I mostly write fiction. My first book, The Shortest Way Home, was published in 2019, also by Dutton. Writing a book is not a straight line. Even if you have one book published, it takes time to get it right. I’d encourage anyone who loves to write to pursue it. I wrote three novels before I published The Shortest Way Home, and then another novel in between that isn’t published yet. It’s a constant journey of trying to get it right, which is, in a way, also the story of my protagonists.
Your protagonist, Gillian Brodie, seems to echo the classic character of Miss Jean Brodie from Muriel Spark’s iconic novel. How did Spark’s work influence yours?
When I began to come up with the idea for the book, I thought it would be a modern day take on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. But when I reread Spark’s book I was taken aback. It’s not a contemporary work; it’s actually a little bit weird. The original Brodie has some very inappropriate relationships with her young students. That being said, I did like the beginning, the devotion the young students had to their teacher. That’s the only element that really made it into the book.
While the original Miss Brodie is confident, constantly talking about being in her prime, Gillian is kind of the opposite. We meet her when the world has broken her down. What I love about her, though, is that she grows over the course of the story. She realizes that she does have a talent and a skill that can be applied in different ways she wouldn’t have expected. That’s a meaningful thing to discover, especially when something pretty traumatic has happened to you to set you off on your journey.
The idea of taking a leap of faith is an animating plot point, something I find interesting. It’s so different from my actual life. I’ve had the same job for 20 years, I’ve almost always lived in New York, I’m not a person who’s done any of the things that my characters do. Part of me is curious to see what would happen to someone who did just leave their life. The fun thing about writing and reading is the ability to live other people’s lives. I’ve heard it said that readers are the most empathic people and I think that makes sense to me. As a reader, you’re able to enter someone else’s mind in a way that you kind of can’t any other way in any other medium.
How does being Jewish influence your writing?
I think of myself as a Jewish person, but I don’t know if I think of myself as a Jewish writer. It’s something I’m still grappling with. Sometimes I wonder why my characters aren’t overtly Jewish. I don’t know. I was raised within Reform Judaism and loved being Jewish, growing up. I loved going to synagogue, I begged my parents and the Rabbi to let me go to Hebrew school despite being too young, I worked at the Hebrew school through high school. But, when I went to college, people were much more observant than I was and I didn’t feel like I wanted to take on a more observant Judaism. I’ve definitely stayed more culturally Jewish over the years, and that might be where my characters are, too. If they are Jewish, it’s more in the background.
So much has happened in the past couple of years, and what’s interesting about writing a book is that it remains grounded in the moment when you start writing it. You have to stay in that moment, in a way. The plot of Room & Board takes place in a shorter period of time, about four months. I feel like I’ve been in that timeframe and just not quite ready yet to set it aside, to start something new. Also, now I’m a mom and have been through a pandemic. So, who knows what the next book is gonna be, but I’ll start it maybe when my daughter is about five.
Miriam Parker’s latest novel is Room & Board, out now and available wherever books are sold.